The benefits of reading are frequently extolled. Some of the benefits relate to improved health and are supported by scientific evidence. These claims may be true as far as they go, but does this go far enough? What of the benefits we need most? Such comments seem to assume that any kind of reading is a good thing. What kind of reading truly could save your life?
Hugh Binning (1627–1653) has some interesting remarks on books and reading. Binning taught philosophy at the University of Glasgow. After this, he was a Church of Scotland minister. A prolific author, he had a formidable intellect and knowledge of theology and philosophy. James Durham observed “that there was no speaking after Mr Binning”. Yet he expressed himself plainly as a preacher and often attracted vast crowds. His views on reading and books are well worth gathering.
1. Temporary benefit
Some claim that “reading can save your life”. This involves any kind of reading that absorbs the mind. Does this promise too much, however? It is true that its physical benefits include stress reduction and increased calm. It helps to preserve the memory and stimulate the mind. Yet, as Binning notes, reading simply to pass valuable time is not good enough. “Many books serve no purpose except to spend and pass the time without thought”.
Reading is often commended as a way to increase intelligence. It develops the imagination, vocabulary and analytical thinking. While these are good things in themselves, it is not every book that truly enriches. We need to be selective. Binning observes that for the “most part many books are good for nothing except to burden and over-weary the world. They make readers imagine knowledge which they do not have. Many books serve only to nourish men’s curiosity, vain imaginations and contentions about words and notions”.
The health and intellectual benefits that we may gain from reading are real. Yet at best they are still only temporary. Much of the pleasure as well as benefit of books is also short-lived. Many “writings and discourses may tickle the ears with some pleasing eloquence, but that is vanishing. It is merely like a musician’s voice. Some may give minor and momentary benefits. But how soon will all that be at an end? Within a little time, the benefits of all the books of the world will be gone”.
Then there are books that promise something more than escapism. They offer therapy and increased self-esteem. A recent book with the title How Dante Saved My Life speaks of finding a way out of depression in this way. Yet there is no evidence of that author coming to rely on anything more than a gospel which is not authentic. Such therapeutic benefits may go deeper but are still only temporary.
2. Reading that truly saves your life
Truly spiritually edifying books have much to offer in so far as they communicate the truth of God’s Word. These benefits are spiritual and lasting. Yet no book other than the Scriptures can offer 100% benefit. This is the Book of all books. “Other books may have sound content, but there is still something, in either style or words which is unsound. No one can speak truth to you in such plainness, simplicity and such soundness as the Scriptures”. The Bible has “sound content and sound words. It is the truth truly presented. Health and salvation are offered in as healthful content as is possible. Its content and style are both divine”.
“Make much of Scripture, for you will neither read nor hear the like of it in the world!”
Can reading really save your life? “The Scriptures show the path of life. Life is the most excellent of all things. It comes nearest the blessed being of God. When we say life, we understand a blessed life, only this deserves the name”. Only Scripture truly offers eternal life to those that read. “Eternal life is in it”.
3. Perfectly profitable reading
“Who can speak of the usefulness and profitableness of the Scriptures equal to their worth? Some things may be over-commended, all things in fact, except this – God speaking in His word to mankind. Human writings are described in many ways. Some are called accurate, some clever, some ingenious and some profound and deep. Some are plain, some learned. They may call them what they please. Scripture justly claims the sole prerogative to these two descriptions – holy and profitable”.
“The best speaker in the world cannot avoid sinning in many words. The best writer has some dross and rubbish. But in Scripture everything is holy, everything is profitable. If you do not profit by it, you can have no pleasure in it. It is only ordained for profiting your soul, not for pleasing your imagination. It is not provided as the basis for curious speculation, nor for contention and strife about its interpretation. Scripture both can profit you and will profit you. I wish that souls would read the Scriptures as profitable Scriptures intending to receive profit. If you do not read with such a purpose, you do not read not the Scriptures of God. They become like any other book to you”.
“But what are they profitable for? For doctrine – divine doctrine, a doctrine of life and happiness. It is the great promise of the new covenant, ‘You shall be all taught of God’. Scripture can make a man learned and wise, learned to salvation. It is foolishness to the world, “but the world through wisdom know not God.” What then do they know? Is there any besides God? And is there any knowledge besides the knowledge of God? You have a poor, lesser wisdom among you to gather riches and manage your business. Others have a poor imaginary wisdom that they call learning.
Generally people think that to pray to God is merely a paper-skill, a little book-craft. They think the knowledge of God is nothing else except learning to read the Bible. Do not be mistaken. To know God is something altogether different. The doctrine of Jesus Christ written on the heart is a deep, profound learning. The poorest, most simple, least educated people may (by the Spirit’s teaching) become wiser than their ancients, than their ministers”.
4. Deeper reading: searching the Scriptures
This kind of reading truly offers life. But this life does not come merely from the activity of reading. A deeper reading that is required. This involves searching the Scriptures. Search them to discover eternal life. Search them to find Christ and to know him. To know Christ is eternal life.
“Searching signifies diligence, great diligence. It’s a serious work, it’s not ordinary seeking of an easy and common thing. It’s search and scrutiny for something hidden or something special. Bare reading of the Scriptures will not fulfill this duty unless it is diligent and daily reading. Yet this alone is not enough unless the spirit within meditates on them and searches diligently through meditation. There is some hidden secret that you must search for which is enclosed within the covering of words and sentences. There is a mystery of wisdom that you must apply your hearts to searching out (Ecclesiastes 7: 5). Jesus Christ is the treasure hid in this field. O precious treasure of eternal life! Now then, souls, search in the fields of the Scriptures (Proverbs 2:4) for Him as for hidden treasure. It is not only truth you must seek, buy, and not sell but you must search for life”.
5. Deeper reading: meditating on the Scriptures
Deeper reading means more than merely understanding the truth. “If you want to profit from the Scriptures, you must bring both understanding and affections to them. You must not depart until they both return full. If you bring your understanding to seek the truth, you may find truth, but not truly. You may find it, but you are not found of it.”
“You may ‘know the truth’, but you are not ‘known of it’. Nor are you brought into captivity to obeying it. The treasure that is hidden in the Scriptures is Jesus Christ, whose complete and perfect name is, ‘Way, Truth, and Life’. He is a living truth and true life…He has truth in him to satisfy the mind, and has life and goodness in Him to completely satisfy the heart”.
The amount that we find of Christ is the amount of profit we get from the Scriptures.
Deeper reading means meditating on the Word that we read. “It is not so much reading much of Scripture that profits, as pondering these things in your hearts. Digesting them by frequent meditation, until they become the food of the soul”.
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